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Norah Carlin

Boring On

(September 1981)

From Socialist Review, No. 8, September–October 1981.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

People’s History and Socialist Theory
History Workshop Series £6.95

This is a fascinating and frustrating book. It must be said, however, that it is not as frustrating as was attendance at the 1979 History Workshop at Ruskin College, Oxford, of which it is an account. Locked out of overcrowded meetings, faced with impossible choices between equally attractive and equally unpredictable speakers, and finally arse-numbed on a hard bench in a freezing cold church for what was billed as the debate of the decade – it would have been reassuring to know we would one day have the Book of the Event.

So what was it about, History Workshop 13? In case you may think the title is a unifying theme, the editor, Raphael Samuel, gives us two separate introductions, one on People’s History and one on Socialist Theory. In case you might think that means the book is divided into two parts, one colourful descriptive history and one lofty theory, it isn’t that either. The fifty-two articles and papers included are, as you might expect, extremely varied, but the detailed reconstruction of working-class life for which History Workshop is justly famous (if often parodied) is not to be found here.

The reason for this becomes clear in Raphael Samuel’s Afterword on the basic aims and orientation of History Workshop. He describes the intention of encouraging worker-historians to research and write, providing an alternative to the system of lectures, tutorials and exams, and of making the annual Workshops ‘a highly political occasion’ – in short, ‘democratising historical practice ... against the dominant bourgeois mode of historiography’. But things have not worked out quite like that for History Workshop, not at all.

Since the foundation of History Workshop Journal in 1975 arguments about theory and matters of principle, some of them deep and bitter, have kept cropping up among the grassroots of ‘people’s history’. History Workshop 13 was evidently an attempt at stocktaking, a decision to give this tendency its head, to let it all hang out and see what happened.

What happened was, firstly, that the proceedings were dominated almost totally by university academics. (Look through the introductions to contributors – almost without exception, the only ones without university jobs are women; there isn’t even a poly represented!) History Workshop has created an alternative academic environment rather than an alternative to academic history, and there is a big difference. This was extremely frustrating for the hundreds of non-academics present, and was criticised by the Ruskin students’ collective before the end of the weekend.

Secondly and as a direct result, the language and style of many of the contributions was directed towards what publishers call ‘the specialist audience’. Contributors felt it necessary to refer to ‘a high level of empirical depth’, or to use ‘acritical’ (sometimes a-critical) as somehow more meaningful than ‘uncritical’. The peak in the book is reached by Andrew Lincoln’s appalling academic Franglais. Some articles are difficult for even an academic to follow if not acquainted with the history of these debates.

Marxism, as might be expected, is a central issue. But the range of attitudes to it is immense. ‘I don’t believe in socialist history. I believe that to use history as a weapon in the political struggle is counterproductive,’ writes Peter Burke. Another contributor quotes with approval the opinion that, ‘Whether a historian inspired by but developing Marx’s thought remains properly Marxist … is a question of no serious intellectual importance whatsoever.’ Well, the net of invitations was cast wide and there’s no harm in that if the thing is meant to be a forum.

But what Socialist Review readers will presumably want to know is, was there a hard core of commuted Marxist history at the heart of it? Where, in all this, is the politics? The answer to this is the most frustrating of all.

Many contributors clearly do regard themselves as committed Marxists, and explicitly discuss the relationship between Marxist history and political activity. But the conclusions they come to (with the exception of feminist ‘fragmentism’) are always negative. ‘Given the political formlessness and difficulties of our times,’ says Ken Worpole, it is better to concentrate on the ‘long-revolution’ which seems to be composed of working class autobiographies. Robert Colls regards the History Workshop forum as ‘a surrogate politics for those depressed by the dismal political options of a country which no longer has a radical movement worthy of the name.’ Bob Scribner, though he admires the ‘People’s History’ work of the German Communist Party in the early 1920s, thinks that, ‘In so far as ... the historian is actively involved in politics, there is a problem of time and resources to carry out historical investigations with the necessary rigour.’

It was, of course, this hesitation with regard to political involvement that Edward Thompson set out to attack in his contribution to the debate on his book, The Poverty of Theory. Bitterly criticised at the time for ‘causing pain’ to other academics by his polemical style and frequent use of the term Stalinism (anyone even remotely connected with the Socialist Workers Party will be amazed by this low pain threshold), Thompson’s tirade is passionate, witty, devastating and shallow. Intellectually, Stuart Hall’s counter-critique carries far more weight: he lucidly rejects both Althusserian philosophy and the vagueness of Thompson’s ‘specificity of history as a discipline’.

But even more explicitly than in this book, Thompson called, on that cold November night in 1979, for academics to get out of their ivory towers and into political activity. At the time, Edward Thompson’s last organised political activity was the May Day Manifesto of 1967–8; but within a year of this debate he was hitting the headlines with the Campaign for European Nuclear Disarmament and Protest and Survive.

And there’s the problem – the clearest and loudest call for political commitment in this book results (however worthy the anti-nuclear cause) only in some vague kind of ‘radical’ politics (‘popular but not populist’ was Thompson’s phrase on the night, not reproduced here) and an organisation designed to mobilise public opinion in general and academics in particular.

History Workshop is not, in all this, the innocent proletarian victim exploited yet again by academic history. From the start, its founders were hostile to revolutionary politics – and in terms frequently as nasty as anything Edward Thompson ever said to Richard Johnson. They thought they could provide a socialist history without politics by concentrating on the ‘grass roots’ and ‘back to the sources’. Instead, they got an academic takeover and the worst kind of populist politics, leading to an obsession with the kinds of ‘theoretical’ questions they wished so earnestly to avoid.

Many of the papers in this book, however, are interesting and provocative. Women readers will be particularly interested in Barbara Taylor’s defence of the Utopian Socialists (compare it with Gareth Stedman-Jones’s critique of them in another section) and Sheila Rowbotham’s attack on the theory of patriarchy. There are articles on socialist history in other countries such as France and Denmark, and some interesting discussion of ‘grass roots’ history in inner-city areas and among the North-East miners.

If there is little hope of converting History Workshop to revolutionary socialism, the stocktaking of 1979 shows that there is, more than ever, a need for an independent organisation for revolutionary Marxist history.

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